Lazarus is Not a Threat, He is a Gift: A Parable for Modern American Christianity

I recently reread Pope Francis’ Lenten message for 2017 entitled “The Word is a gift. Other persons are a gift”and felt personally challenged to see those around me as gifts of God, as living words of love being spoken by our Heavenly Father.  And yet as I read I realized how much we in the American Church as a whole need to hear the message of this parable.  I decided to do a cursory read of what the last few pope’s have had to tell us about this parable and its application in our lives.  This blog post is about my findings.

 

Pope Saint John Paul II had some powerful words to share with Americans in particular about this parable. Preaching inside Yankee stadium during mass on October 2, 1979 he told us:

 

“The parable of the rich man and Lazarus must always be present in our memory; it must form our conscience. Christ demands an openness that is more than benign attention, more than token actions or half-hearted efforts that leave the poor as destitute as before or even more so.. All of humanity must think of the parable of the rich man and the beggar. Humanity must translate it into contemporary terms, in terms of economy and politics, in terms of all human rights, in terms of relations between the “First”, “Second” and “Third World”.”  (Homily 7.)

 

God is calling us to take notice of our suffering brothers and sisters right outside our borders and those who are running to us seeking our help.  What is so beautiful is that every poor person is a gift, everyone who seeks our help is also a means of God helping us, rescuing us from worldly pursuits.  In the parable the very name Lazarus means “God helps.”  (Pope Benedict Lenten Message 2012)  If we read the message of the parable we can see that God sent the poor beggar to the rich man’s “large gate” as a way to help him.  Lazarus himself was a gift, the gift of Jesus’ own presence. And yet for probably many of the same reasons we have today the nameless richman tried to ignore him and keep him outside.  He wanted to be able to choose his neighbors, choose the when and where if ever he would respond to God’s voice.  And Lazarus was the message, he was an embodiment of Christ’s own incarnation of the father’s love. This poor outsider was the embodied presence of the God-Man.

 

Pope Francis says:

 

No messenger and no message can take the place of the poor whom we meet on the journey, because in them Jesus himself comes to meet us: “as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me” (Mt 25:40) General Audience Wednesday May 18, 2016  

 

Yet how often we ignore the message of the Gospel found in the needy around us, attempting to keep ourselves safe by human means relying more on man than God.  I remember my first time living in Mexico.  How sad was the extreme poverty we saw within minutes from the US border.  How many Lazarus’ sat outside the gates of our country.  How often they are ignored or seen only as a threat to the American way of life!  And yet we know they are there.  

 

“Do not be afraid. Open wide the doors for Christ. To his saving power open the boundaries of states, economic and political systems, the vast fields of culture, civilization and development. Do not be afraid. Christ knows what is in man. He alone knows it” (John Paul II Homily)

 

How fearful the worldly Christian is!  Since returning to the US I have been amazed at how little biblical wisdom is used to make decisions about one’s neighbor by christians!  It all seems to be centered on a certain worldly wisdom.  I am reminded of the Worldly Wiseman in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress who offers:

 

what you desire, only without the perils that you are certain to encounter if you follow the way ahead…for instead of dangers you will meet with much safety, friendship, and content.

 

How many of us have sought the crossless Christ, the Jesus without danger, a safe, friendly Jesus who made sense and fit into our box.  But this Jesus can’t help us see God because he isn’t the image of God’s love which reaches out and enters the pain of the world.  He is merely a sanitized copy lifeless and unable to give sight to our blindness.  

 

Pope Francis tells us that “being worldly means losing your name and having the eyes of your soul “darkened”, anesthetized, until you no longer see the people around you.”  (Homily for Thursday March 5, 2015)  It is a sickness, an affliction.  “With a worldly heart” is impossible to comprehend the necessities and needs of others. With a worldly heart you can go to Church, you can pray, you can do many things…But what did Jesus pray for at the Last Supper? “Please, Father, protect these disciples” so that “they do not fall in the world, do not fall into worldliness”. (ibid)

 

I remember experiencing this worldliness in some who visited us at our mission post and instead of feeling compassion for the poor and lost they felt happy that they were going home and didn’t have to live this way.  They felt “thankful” for all they had but seemed little inclined to use it to lift their brothers and sisters out of misery.  For some this led to a sense of disgust that people lived this way.  They were then much more concerned with the possibility that America could be “heading in the same direction” because of the President.  They had worldly hearts, afraid of others, afraid of suffering, afraid of the cross.  

 

And yet  “God’s word teaches us that only our trust in Jesus is secure: other trusts are useless, they do not save us, they do not give life, they do not give joy”. Indeed, “they bring us death and drought”…’our problem” as the Scriptures tell us, “is that our hearts are treacherous”. (ibid)

 

Where is our trust?  In the government?  In walls and stronger borders?  In better vetting and harsher declamations against “Islamic terrorism?”  Do these forms of trust draw us closer to Jesus in others?  

 

John Paul II reminds us “When we Christians make Jesus Christ the center of our feelings and thoughts, we do not turn away from people and their needs.” (Homily Yankee Stadium)  

 

The poor of the United States and of the world are your brothers and sisters in Christ…You must never be content to leave them just the crumbs from the feast. You must take of your substance, and not just of your abundance, in is order to help them.  And you must treat them like guests at your family table. (Ibid)

 

What would really make America great would be an openness to Jesus found in our neighbors. “It is in the joyful simplicity of a life inspired by the Gospel and the Gospel’s spirit of fraternal sharing that you will find the best remedy for sour criticism, paralyzing doubt and the temptation to make money the principal means and indeed the very measure of human advancement.”  (Ibid)

 

I understand some will see this post as judgemental and smug.  I am sorry.  I still struggle with the same issues within my own heart.  I turn away from the homeless man.  I feel put out when he or she is waiting for me at the red light of the off ramp.  Let me be the first to admit my own need of a Savior.  Let me be the first to admit my need for the poor.  I need them to bring me close to Jesus.  Nevertheless someone needs to says these things.  As Pope Benedict writes:

 

“Christian admonishment, for its part, is never motivated by a spirit of accusation or recrimination. It is always moved by love and mercy, and springs from genuine concern for the good of the other.” (Lenten Message 2012)  

 

May our Merciful Father bless you and keep you and be present to you in His poor and lost.

 

A Life Transfigured by God’s Presence: Becoming Spirit-filled Evangelizers in the Modern World Part 1

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FMC Class of 2016

How I long to find the right words to stir up enthusiasm for a new chapter of evangelization full of fervor, joy, generosity, courage, boundless love and attraction!”  Pope Francis Evangelii Gaudium 261

 

During the month of January I was blessed with the opportunity to lead a group of new missionaries through the final section of Pope Francis’ magisterial document on Evangelization Evangelii Gaudium.  We spent some weeks carefully studying how we can become better evangelists, filled with the Holy Spirit, convinced of God’s love and abounding in the joy of the Lord.  I wanted to write on some of our finding and share some reflections from our time together in hopes that it will bless others who didn’t have the privilege of being present in our sessions.

 

One of the central themes in the Catholic vision for true Evangelization is the need to pray first and work second.  A Spirit-filled Evangelist is one whose life is devoted to prayer.  He or she must be convinced that only through prayer, through a constant drawing from the well of life (Deus Caritas Est 7) will one’s mission or testimony be authentic.  As Pope Francis states:

Without prolonged moments of adoration, of prayerful encounter with the word, of sincere conversation with the Lord, our work easily becomes meaningless; we lose energy as a result of weariness and difficulties, and our fervor dies out. (Ev Gaud 262)

 

Alone we cannot even begin to complete the great work of evangelization Jesus has entrusted to us.  Our mission becomes a mere duty, an ethical choice rather than an offspring of personal encounter and love.  I am continually reminded of Pope Benedict’s words “Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” (Deus Caritas Est 1)  What this means is that we do not profess our faith nor share Jesus’ love because it is the right thing to do or because it is a radical idea.  We do it because our love of Jesus impels us (2 Cor 5:14) to share our joy with those around us.  This in turn is our principal way of loving Him.  Going to Mass and even adoration is “fragmented” (Deus Caritas est 14) without an equal desire to love our neighbor and share with them the True Bread of Life.  We need to reach out and meet the most urgent needs of our brothers and sisters around us.  “For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” (I John 4:20b)  And yet as Saint John Paul II said we know that our neighbors “are hungry for God, not just for bread and freedom.” (Redemptoris Missio 83)

In spite of all possible exhortations to love and evangelize we know ourselves all too well.  My desire easily flags and my mind becomes easily distracted by the world.  I struggle to stay focused on the light of Christ as I live among other lesser lights of the world.  We recently spent a month serving among the indigenous tribes of Fort Belknap Reservation in North Montana.  One day we crossed the border to Canada and stopped at the Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park in South Alberta.  It was so beautiful.  As we left we stopped at a gas station and picked up a flyer that discussed light pollution.  It showed how many lights were visible from space 50 years ago and how many more are visible today.  All this “light pollution” makes it harder to see the stars in the sky at night.  

I considered that the spiritual life is so similar.  When we surround ourselves with so many lesser lights, television, nightly news, talk radio, internet, etc.  We can find it more difficult to encounter the living God.  How often do I spend reading my Bible or in prayer?  How often do I spend watching television or listening to someone else interpret my reality for me?  We must go to the true source.  Without this vital and often encounter with Jesus we will struggle to see His light, hear His voice, be His voice.  

We should have a great zeal to share His love.  Yet we cannot simply conjure up the joy, share a love we do not fully possess.  “Love grows through love.” (Deus Caritas Est 18)

The words of Pope Francis give us direction and comfort when he says

What kind of love would not feel the need to speak of the beloved, to point him out, to make him known? If we do not feel an intense desire to share this love, we need to pray insistently that he will once more touch our hearts. (Ev Gaud 264)

He will hear us if we ask He will pour out joy into our hearts and a burning passion for the lost.  Ask God right now for a joyful strength to live the life of a Spirit Filled Evangelizer and He, who is so generous will give it (James 1:5)  “There is nothing more precious which we can give to others.” (Ev Gaud 264)

The Profound Sweetness of the Cross

I Corinthians 2:2 For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

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In the 15th chapter of the book of Exodus we are given a profound foretaste of the power of the cross and it workings in the spiritual life.   The setting is the immediate aftermath of the passing through the Red Sea and the miraculous saving intervention of God destroying the enemies of Israel and His glorious triumph.  Moses and the Israelites sing the first song recorded in the narrative of the Biblical text.  They sing of His glory.  They sing of His grandeur.  He is painted as a warrior who has utter control.  There is no possible opposition to His power.  The enemies of God and His chosen are in terror and dread and “because of the greatness of thy arm, they are as still as a stone.” (Ex 15:16).  Later on in the chapter Miriam, the first prophetess, also sings with the women a shorter song proclaiming His glory and His power.

Nevertheless, 3 days later in the narrative the Israelites begin to feel thirsty and start to panic.  When they finally find water it is undrinkable because of its bitterness.  This leads them to question the motives of their great and powerful God.   “And the people murmured against Moses, saying, “What shall we drink?” (15:24) Their complaint becomes more explicit further on in chapter 16:

 

Would that we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate bread to the full; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger. (16:3)

 

In 17: once more they murmur:

 

“Why did you bring us up out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and our cattle with thirst?”

 

What fascinated me so much when I read and reflected upon this passage was that the Israelites never questioned God’s ability of provide or even whether He was in control.  They certainly didn’t question His existence.  They had seen and marveled at His powerful intervention in their lives but then once it was missing they lost confidence that He cared for them. They knew He was a God of armies with a strong arm yet their question and complaint was one I have struggled with often in the bitter disappointments and regrets of my own life.  They begin to doubt whether this saving, terrible God was for them.  They question whether He cared for them, whether He had the best in mind for them.  I remember asking these same questions to God when we lost Ezekiel our 2nd year of mission.  “Why did You bring us out here to Mexico to kill my children?  I have wrestled with these types of questions off and on many times when my kids have been sick or the mission seems fruitless and hard.  Sure God CAN work miracles in my life He CAN do all things, He CAN heal me etc.  But does He really want to?  Has He tired of my weaknesses and failures?

My faith has often failed me as did the chosen people’s in accepting that God, so glorious, so powerful, could possibly be so interested in me. “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Ps 8:4) I too have complained bitterly before the Lord of His apparent neglect of me and my own.  I too have asked Him if He brought us into missions to kill us off.  I too have drunk of the bitter waters and murmured against His goodness.

In Exodus 15:15 is says “And he cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a tree, and he threw it into the water, and the water became sweet.” God pointed out the tree and through the tree He made the bitterness sweet.  I read that story yesterday before the blessed sacrament and I began to weep because I could hear Him saying to me, “Son, I have also given you a tree.  I have bound myself to it as an eternal pledge of my love for you.  You are precious in my eyes.  You and your family.”

The same tree that made all bitter things sweet was the God-Man’s greatest bitterness.  I starred up at the crucifix next to the tabernacle.  I saw Jesus hanging there, thirsting for me:

Jesus thirsts; his asking arises from the depths of God’s desire for us. Whether we realize it or not, prayer is the encounter of God’s thirst with ours. God thirsts that we may thirst for him.  (CCC 2960)

In the cross the God-Man bound Himself inseparably to our suffering and bitterness.  Saint John Paul II writes that the cross throws “a new light upon every suffering; the light of salvation.” (Salvifici Doloris 14) His sufferings make our sufferings sweet because the most important question for me about the bitterness and suffering in my life is not why it happens but rather whether God is with me in the pain and bitterness. Whether He feels my pain and knows what it is like, whether He identifies with my suffering.  I heard God speaking to me pointing out the tree of the cross and saying “I have bound myself to you and to your suffering to make your suffering sweeter”.

Saint Paul writes, “If God is for us, who is against us?” (Romans 8:31). I need to believe that God is on my side, is by my side. To believe that HE ONLY GIVES ME THE VERY BEST.  Nothing has so destroyed my image of God as the loss of my precious son.  Before His death I too was so impressed by His power and provision.  I wanted this power. I wanted to be strong.  Yet “when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:10)

I have come to treasure so much more the beauty of the cross.  The cross is the proof that HE IS FOR ME, FOR US, FOR MY FAMILY.  I can have peace only when I trust in His enduring love for me.  In the deserts of my own life when I have tasted the bitterness of suffering I have heard His voice say to me: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt 11:28) Like John the beloved disciple “I have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us.” (I John 4:16)

Pope Benedict writes:

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words, the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction. Saint John’s Gospel describes that event in these words: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should … have eternal life” (3:16).

20170109_121824This is the bedrock of the Gospel message for the world, the entire message we proclaim as missionaries.  God is for us.  Ever since the fall we have lived with the lurking fear that steals our peace “What if He is against me?  What if He won’t come through for me?  What if He wants to destroy me or my own?”  I have hidden so many times from my God as He walked in the gardens of my heart.  Yet the goodness of the Gospel we preach is that He is for us.  In the encouraging words of Pope Francis:

 

On the lips of the catechist the first proclamation must ring out over and over: “Jesus Christ loves you; he gave his life to save you; and now he is living at your side every day to enlighten, strengthen and free you.” This first proclamation is called “first” not because it exists at the beginning and can then be forgotten or replaced by other more important things. It is first in a qualitative sense because it is the principal proclamation, the one which we must hear again and again in different ways, the one which we must announce one way or another throughout the process of catechesis, at every level and moment. (Evangelii Gaudium 164)